FRESNO, Calif. — Glenn Anderson decided to make a change when he followed in his father's footsteps by growing almonds near the Central Valley town of Hilmar – he stopped using pesticides and pasteurizing the nuts.
He said it's paid off in happy customers and sold-out harvests, but Anderson, 76, said he fears federal regulations could ruin his business selling raw, organic almonds. He's hopeful an effort by a dozen California almond growers and retailers to challenge the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its rules will succeed.
The USDA adopted the regulations requiring that nuts be steamed or treated with a chemical in response to salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2004 blamed on raw almonds that left some sickened.
Anderson, who isn't among the plaintiffs, called the USDA rules misguided.
"We are as clean as or cleaner than a pasteurized product," said Anderson. "My customers are willing to take that risk."
Those challenging the USDA scored a legal victory last week when a U.S. Court of Appeals judge ruled they could proceed with a lawsuit challenging the regulations.
The almond producers, not all of whom are organic, said the rules have sabotaged their businesses by not allowing them to compete with foreign-produced raw almonds.
They also objected to requirements that they steam the nuts or spray them with propylene oxide, which is widely used but concerns some farmers because it has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable carcinogen. The EPA allows the use of PPO, as it is known, in small amounts not believed to harm human health.
Michael Jarvis, a spokesman for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Services, said the federal government is reviewing the Aug. 3 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Jarvis declined to comment further.
The Modesto-based Almond Board, the trade group that recommended the rules, defended the regulations.
"The food quality and safety program, including pasteurization, went into effect in 2007, and was developed after an extended, transparent process involving all segments of the almond industry," the board said in a statement.
Anderson said he is able to continue producing his almonds naturally – for now – because he is a small business and often sells directly to consumers. But other farmers said the rule has hurt them and left many customers agitated.
"Yes, people are incensed," said Jesse Schwartz, whose Berkeley, Calif.-based Living Tree Community Foods makes organic almond butter. "People want their almonds back."
Raw foods comprise most of the 67-year-old entrepreneur's diet, and Schwartz describes almonds as a "gift of the California earth, air and water." He thinks it's the most healthful nut.
"I feel I have all the energy that I need to accomplish whatever I have to do," said Schwartz.
Growers note that while their almonds must either be chemically treated or heated by steam to about 200 degrees to kill salmonella and other contaminants, their products share the shelves at organic-friendly supermarkets such as Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and Fresh and Easy with foreign-grown almonds that are not treated with steam.
Some people believe the steam compromises the taste and possibly nutritional value of the nut – a claim disputed by public health experts – and farmers said it adds cost as well.
California produces nearly all of the nation's almonds and 85 percent of the world's supply, according to the Almond Board. Organics represents a small percentage of that total, but it has been growing.
Some public health experts said even if raw organic almond producers don't subject their almonds to pasteurization, the nuts might be safer than conventionally produced almonds because the organic farms don't use pesticides and often are careful about exposing their crop to contaminants such as animal waste because that could threaten their organic certification.
Dr. Robert S. Lawrence, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said studies have shown that under 1 percent of almonds are contaminated by a variety of salmonella strains. He compares that to much higher percentages in some meats.
"If the rest of our food supply were that safe, we'd be shouting for joy, so I can appreciate and sympathize with the producers who are asking to be relieved of this burden," said Lawrence.